The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest
Shortly before his untimely death in 2004, Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson surprised his unsuspecting editor with a trilogy of manuscripts. Published posthumously, The Millennium Trilogy would go on to sell over twenty-one million copies and become a world-wide literary sensation. Larsson never got to enjoy the fruits of his labor, and it seems that his long-time partner, Eva Gabrielsson, won't get to, either. Due to a Swedish law that required all married couples to make their home address available to the public, the pair forewent nuptials in order to maintain their privacy. Consequently, Gabrielsson has no legal claim to Larsson's now impressive assets. Larsson did have a will at the time of his death, naming The Communist Workers League as beneficiary, but it was dated 1977 and it was never witnessed. Enter Larsson's estranged family, to reap the benefits in what many consider a cash grab of conspiratorial proportions.
And if you think that story is convoluted, you should try reading one of his books.
The first of Larsson's novels to be published was The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a large scale "locked room" mystery that introduces us to dashing journo, Mikael Blomkvist, and socially awkward heroine, Lisbeth Salander. The unlikely pair join forces to investigate the decades old mystery of a missing girl, uncovering a heinous history of serial murder and sexual abuse in the process. To say any more would do the two people who haven't read the book a disservice.
For all the hype, Dragon Tattoo is still a mass market genre novel. A well written one, but a genre novel all the same. Being a genre novel, it is not completely devoid of the associated cliches. The story itself is highly procedural, but to Larsson's credit, it is also immensely readable. For a book its size, the five-hundred plus pages practically turn themselves. The final revelation is a bit of a stretch, and I found the religious angle superfluous at times, but it works well enough given the material. The book doesn't warrant a sequel based on plot, but there are enough unanswered questions regarding the characters, especially Salander, to make the endeavor worthwhile.
Which is why I'm glad I kept reading. I may be in the minority, but I feel The Girl Who Played With Fire is a marked improvement over its predecessor. Gone are the clumsy trappings of the serial killer genre, replaced with a much more intriguing conspiracy plot. By now, Larsson's characterization has paid off, as we are deeply invested in the girl with the shadowy past. The more trouble she gets into, the more endearing the stubborn misanthrope becomes. So when the authors of a sex trafficking expose are found murdered and Salander becomes the prime suspect, it is as if it has happened to a pig-headed member of your own family.
Down the rabbit hole we go. Blomkvist may be the hero, but Fire is Salander's story. Her innermost secrets are revealed as we delve deeper into her past. Books two and three of the trilogy are almost one big story, split down the middle, so the cliffhanger at the end of Fire makes part three an automatic "must read."
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, which has just been published in the U.S., is part police procedural, part conspiracy thriller, and part courtroom drama. Larsson wisely broadens the scope, expanding the plot to encompass the entire Swedish government. Salander spends much of the novel in a hospital bed, but the action never falters. Against her better judgment, she is once again forced to place her trust in Blomkvist, just like the reader must place their trust in Larsson. In both cases, that trust pays dividends. Hornet's Nest is a bigger, badder, possibly more self-indulgent, but overall better book than the others. Revenge is exacted, secrets are revealed, and there is no shortage of surprises. If you haven't had any complaints up until this point, you shouldn't have any now.
Alright, maybe I have a few complaints. From a story standpoint, Erika Berger's brief sojourn as editor-in-chief of a major Swedish newspaper feels like an unnecessary diversion in a book this long, although it does add to the overall tension of the piece. As previously stated, characterization is Larsson's strong suit, and goddamn, if he doesn't wear it well. Might as well indulge him.
Then there is Larsson's continued incorporation of feminist themes into his books. I've read that he was witness to a rape at a young age, so I don't doubt his intentions, but I was very conscious of his thinly masked outrage as I read. I found the statistics on violence against women in Dragon Tattoo interesting and appropriate, although I'm glad they changed the title from the very unsubtle Men Who Hate Women. At this point, Salander's strength as a woman is feminism enough, and I could do without the overt references to Amazonian warriors that pepper Hornet's Nest.
But these are minor complaints. Hornet's Nest is a tidy wrap up to everything that began in The Girl Who Played With Fire, and rounds out the trilogy nicely. Rumors of a fourth, unfinished novel, and plans for a series of ten show Larsson knew he had struck gold with Salander. I pray to the publishing gods that they don't farm the work out to a lesser writer in a greedy attempt to continue the series. Not knocking any writer brave enough to take up the challenge, but it just wouldn't be the same. Better Salander live on in the hearts and minds of readers than in some glorified piece of fan fiction. Besides, the law of diminishing returns dictates Salander might wear out her welcome, just like that high-maintenance relative.